Exits: Chicago's shopping list
Can an NBA team, like art, be allowed to appreciate?
Oh. This feels familiar. Not the beginning, the end.
When I’m in the right mood, I love the abstract, bullet point shopping lists we assign to teams with deficits, or that appear to be struggling. They’re funny. Never mind that the deficit might lie uniquely in the matchup, like oil and water on court, or sitting idle on the bench watching the same games, injured and in a quiet, necessarily contained agony knowing the hole in gameplay is them-shaped.
Back to the lists though.
Intuitive. Vertical spacer. Above-the-rim big. A bit more athleticism. Defensively minded. Doubles as a lob threat. Shot creator. Rim protector. Doubles as a backup stretch four. Credible wing. Doubles as a playmaker.
I get it. I’ve written them. At the most pure they are wish lists without expectations, nice-to-haves that take into consideration the skill sets of the professionals already present. At worst they are grocery lists for guys. Impersonal, disjointed, hasty, tantamount to jotting down “eggs, coffee, ant traps” on the back of a receipt jammed in your pocket. Did you check how many eggs were still left in the carton? You didn’t.
The Bulls don’t need to be entering the summer ready for a shopping spree. Billy Donovan and Arturas Karnisovas’ pantry is pretty well stocked. This should be a situation where you get a little creative, but mostly practical, with the elements on hand — focus on what's complimentary, who is looking wilted and could use a summer stretch of slow focus, who needs to get healthy, who got burned off early, who might be exactly the right kind of spice that was missing if incorporated at a different time. Together, it might not be enough to make the Bulls sing — anyway, this isn’t a levity team — but it could make them cook.
There is a perceptible effort that will always be there in DeMar DeRozan’s game, not because this is difficult for him, but because he is a person loaded with his own gravity. A personal ballast that goes deep, past the bedrock of everyday.
The beautiful part of watching DeRozan is when he flings that weight off. When he cracks a face-wide smile in his postgames, laughs, when he splits the mid-range open and drains unhurried, easy threes as sure and scary and consuming as lava bubbling up from a volcanic fissure. DeRozan is a good example of why it is worthwhile to do things, to want things, to like things that are effortful. The reason we like basketball to be so seamless and fluid, to look easy, beyond it being akin to moving art and pleasing in the most primal, aesthetically glutted ways, is because it makes it easy to critique. The longer, more unbroken the stretches of play the bigger the canvas to scrutinize.
For Mother’s Day, I took my mom for brunch at the Art Gallery of Ontario and we spent the better part of the afternoon walking slow circuits around the gallery. The somber, surreal Matthew Wong show I loved and was closing and wanted her to see, the contemporary floor with an exhibition on the minutia of everyday life — a 10x10 foot wall of stacked TVs showing home videos of people dancing set to modern mixtapes made carefully by another artist to match; still lifes of roadside fish and chips akin to Dutch Golden Age banquet pieces, the grease rendered immaculate and wet on the canvas — the labyrinth of rooms dedicated to every member of the Group of Seven. Though game for everything, from questionable video art to folk paintings, she will always work her way back to those wings, their paintings. When I was younger I found them boring. Landscapes I’d been seeing all my life through car windows, on camping trips, impatient, but I’ve grown to love them for their expertise and quiet the same way she does. How many ways can you capture the wind-blown Canadian Shield, its shredded skinny pines, looming cloudscapes and psychedelic sunsets? Hundreds, it turns out, and each of them startling.
There’s a painting tucked in a small room off the Group of Seven section by William Kurelek called ‘Don Valley on a Grey Day’. It’s a tall, wide landscape on hardboard that shows Toronto’s Don Valley, the green vein with a seasonally bulging river and highway that splits the city between downtown and its east end. At first glance it’s innocuous. There’s light traffic on the highway below (it was 1972), people are standing on the viaduct bridge that spans the valley, before its baleen-like suicide prevention wings went up, peering down. Everything is green. There have been thousands of summer days just like this before and since, and if you’ve lived somewhere long enough they all blur together. A short caption says Kurelek, who became deeply religious, hid small nods to Catholicism in most of his paintings, and that this one has a Jesus on the cross in it somewhere.
We strain to find it. Splitting the painting in half and each taking a side. We look for five minutes, ten, finally I crack and find a video online that hovers to it, pause it and hold the phone over the painting in the right section to the concern of gallery security. We finally see it. Tiny, a figure edged in darker green crucified in a copse of willows and poplars that are still there today, much taller.
What DeRozan’s arduous play does is allow you the time to pause and hover. To hem and haw and scrutinize what you think is there, to invent and press your nose close to the action and rhythm and finite sleights of hand and hamstring. Maybe you are frustrated when it goes badly, when he opts for a bad look or forced shot instead of bullying in close like he can and can sometimes forget he’s so good at, how DeRozan giving the cold shoulder to defenders immediately opens the floor, bodies pulled to and pushed away from him. Maybe you see all the footwork and heave a sigh, finally take a breath, take the time he’s created for you to glance around the floor or just to the score, dart your eyes back to find he’s still there, working. However you feel about the precision DeRozan deploys you come away with a better appreciation for the separate elements at play, scenes you’ve watched as long as you’ve watched basketball but all of a sudden see rendered different, an entirely new perspective.
The end was the defence not collapsing, but not there. Alex Caruso is so determined at times you can imagine steam coming from his ears, but against Giannis Antetokounmpo there is only so much that sheer stubborn will against pure and total physicality will do. Nikola Vucevic was wobbly, but pulling down 17 rebounds against Milwaukee’s austere brawn is what he’s there to do, he just couldn’t do it and space, too, not when DeRozan was stuck out in his orbit at midrange, falling back on old postseason habits.
It was the worst matchup Chicago could’ve drawn, sometimes it goes that way. That the Bulls struggled with health, were down Lonzo Ball permanently plus Zach LaVine, Caruso and Vucevic in their stuttering ramp up to the playoffs, makes the team’s cooling off from the season’s early heat and hopes a product of circumstance over roster, effort, or a case of choking on a bigger stage.
Art, after all, appreciates. Professional basketball doesn’t have that kind of time.
Still, it isn’t a stretch to expect the Bulls to be back here next year, or for the fears Donovan projected (though after five years in OKC, one Groundhog Day season after another, his compulsion is to make for every summit from the very bottom, once again) in his final postgame after Chicago’s Game 5 elimination when he said the worry was that it would be much harder for the team to climb back to this place after the relatively swift chemistry and cohesion they had to start the year.
The fine line of effort, and being honest about it, is that in sports the compulsion can be to go overboard. Why will it be so hard for the Bulls to be bullish into next season? For better or worse, DeRozan is who he is, Caruso and Ball and Vucevic will rehab and heal, train and fine-tune. Chicago will try to hang onto Coby White, should try to hang onto LaVine. There is a depth question but when isn’t there, for any team, when an entire run of the postseason is spreading out in front of them? It’s important to give room to what’s hard, but not everything needs to be made more difficult.